L BOULANGER Two Pieces for Violin & Piano (5’)
DEBUSSY Piano Preludes Nos 4, 6 & 7 from Book 1 (12’)
N BOULANGER Three Pieces for Cello & Piano (8’)
SIERRA Butterflies Remember a Mountain (11’)
RAVEL Sonata for Violin & Cello (20’)
The Boulanger sisters were pioneering musicians in the early 20th century. Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize, and Nadia taught many students who went on to become famous, such as Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner and even Burt Bacharach! Debussy also features in this French afternoon, with three of his beautiful, evocative Preludes, and Ravel’s Sonata dedicated to his memory – a piece with echoes of both Debussy and the folk music of Hungary.
Sheffield Chamber Music Festival runs 13–21 May 2022
BOULANGER Lili, Two Pieces for Violin & Piano
Lili Boulanger was the sister of the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger who taught Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass amongst others. She was a composer for the last 10 years of her tragically short life – she died at 25 – and her music stands in the main line of French music exemplified by Faure, somewhat tinged with the influence of Debussy’s Impressionism. It is generally beautiful, delicately coloured, and touching. These challenging ‘Two Pieces for Violin and Piano’ exemplify these qualities.
The Nocturne begins sparsely, with bare octave figures wound about with a theme built from a repetitive rise-and-fall figure. As the texture becomes thicker the violin becomes more virtuosic and begins to climb. There is no harmonic resolution until the final ppp note in the top register, which is answered by an low octave from the piano.
The Cortege is more lively without being fast. Shifting rhythmic accents, tricky runs and contrasting dynamics make this an exciting piece.
DEBUSSY Claude, Piano Preludes Nos 4, 6 & 7 from Book 1
By 1909, Debussy had already composed some of his defining works, including the enthusiastically-received tone poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). He had also heard and experienced music outside of the Western Classical tradition.
The fourth prelude of Book I, “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (“The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air”), takes both its title and inspiration from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. It is a gentle waltz-like piece in A major with melodies that seem to float as effortlessly as the sounds and fragrances in Baudelaire’s line. Even the harmonies seem tinged with a dusky hue, giving musical evocation to the twilight setting. The prelude is built around three principal ideas and embodies a sort of ternary design, with a brief middle section in the key of A-flat major. It is gentle and subdued, and nowhere is to be found a disturbing phrase or melodic figure. The only true point of contrast within the prelude is a melody in octaves accompanied by a persistent sixteenth-note countermelody. This, however, simply returns us to a variant of the opening melodic motif and the prelude’s serene close.
Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow, No. 6) shows Debussy’s unparalleled creativity in using harmonic colours. An omnipresent ostinato runs throughout as a representation, perhaps, of a barren, snow-covered land. Musically, a similar parallel exists: it is a ‘blank’ canvas upon which an array of harmonies are added at different points. These rich sonorities transform the scenery from desolate to ominous to poignant, all before returning to the original key of D minor.
One of the most technically impressive of this first volume is Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Saw, No. 7) – robust and at times aggressive, this prelude captures the wind’s fury with the sweeping arpeggios, dominant 7th chords, and perhaps surprisingly dense textures – not to mention the massive chords at the conclusion which maximize the instrument’s low register. However furious the character may be, Debussy’s signature innovative style remains present.
BOULANGER Nadia, Three pieces for cello and piano
Sans vitesse et à l’aise
Vite et nerveusement rythmé
Nadia Boulanger, teacher, conductor, early music pioneer and trusted adviser to the likes of Stravinsky and Poulenc, was also a gifted composer. Fiercely self-critical, she always claimed her own music was nothing like as significant as that of her brilliant younger sister, Lili, but with the rediscovery of Nadia’s music it has become clear that she was a remarkable talent in her own right. She entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine and subsequently studied composition with Fauré. Most of her music dates from between 1904 and 1918 (the year Lili died), including the Three Pieces for cello and piano, composed in 1914 and first published the following year. The first, in E flat minor, presents a song-like melody on the cello over a hushed piano part marked doux et vague. After a brief climactic central section, the opening music returns for a serene close in E flat major. The second piece, in A minor, treats a deceptively simple tune – almost a folksong – in an ingenious canon between the cello and the piano. The last piece, in C sharp minor, is quick, with a middle section that provides a contrast in both rhythm and texture to the playful but muscular mood of the rest.
Nigel Simeone © 2022
SIERRA Arlene, Butterflies Remember a Mountain
- A Mountain
RAVEL Maurice, Sonata for violin and cello
Vif, avec entrain
In 1920, Ravel was asked to contribute to a musical supplement in memory of Debussy for the Revue musicale (other contributors included Bartók, Satie and Stravinsky). This ‘Tombeau’ for Debussy (with a front cover specially drawn by Dufy) appeared in December 1920 and included a ‘Duo’ for violin and cello that would become the first movement of the Sonata for Violin and Cello. It was another two years before Ravel completed the other movements and the whole work was published in 1922 with a dedication to Debussy’s memory. Ravel himself described the austere, pared-down language of the Sonata as ‘stripped to the bone’ and said that ‘harmonic charm is renounced’. The Sonata is also remarkable for its thematic unity, and some ingenious cyclic transformations. For instance, the violin theme heard at the start returns later in the work as do other ideas. The Scherzo suggests that Ravel was familiar with Kodály’s 1914 Duo for violin and cello: Ravel includes elements of Hungarian music in a movement of formidable drive and energy. The slow movement is stark and serious and after building slowly to an impassioned climax, its ending is remote and strange. The finale is brilliantly written for both instruments, bringing this extraordinary work to an athletic close, the dissonances finally resolving on to a chord of C major.
© Nigel Simeone 2018